Airport Review – LAX

Finally, the third of my three airport reviews – Los Angeles International (LAX). Holy crap, what an awful experience. I didn’t have to opt for the nudie photo or sexual assault, because it appeared the nudie photo machines were down on my security line. The counter agents and TSA employees were all quite polite, but there is obviously a serious infrastructural or procedural problem with LAX’s checkin process.  Since I’ve not been through LAX in many years, I assumed it would take twice as long to get through all the hoops as I was accustomed to in years past.  I was pretty close to accurate in that assessment, and I could imagine that there are times when my estimate would have been an underestimate of an order of magnitude.

I arrived four hours before my flight was due to takeoff, because I had run out of things to do in my hotel room and I can read at the airport just as well as anywhere else.  It took over 30 minutes just to get my bag checked, and then I had to carry it myself to the security scanners.  It makes me wonder what those giant conveyor belts behind the ticket agents are for.  Not to mention, since LAX is one of the growing number of “self check in” airports for American Airlines, the name “ticket agent” may be inaccurate as well.  The counter agent merely prints out the label that goes on the bag, after you’ve already verified your identity and printed out your own boarding pass at a kiosk that seemed to drive many people insane with confusion.

After that bizarroland detour, which was leavened by a trio of children who wanted to share all the details of their Disneyland experience, I was directed to the security line.  The security line started outdoors.  It started down the sidewalk.  It actually started near the neighboring terminal.  Thankfully, it only took 45 minutes to get through that line, which was a surprise of inestimable proportion.  It looked like the highest-volume day at Disneyland, waiting for Splash Mountain.  Insane.

Finally, I arrived at the top of the stairs where I could just see the security machinery.  The line bifurcated, then bifurcated again.  Each of those four lines went through a screener who made sure your ID and boarding pass matched. Then, each line split into 2-6 more individual lines.  Since I have a netbook which is listed on the sign as one of those items you don’t need to remove from its case, I didn’t.  That was wrong.  Take it out. Don’t put the case on top of it.  Give me your book.  It was weird as hell, but ultimately just a little more useless security theater.

Now I’ve entered the concourse, past the TSA employees who think they’re cops (no law enforcement function is endowed in these people, no matter what they dress up like).  I’m sipping an iced chai from Starbucks, and wishing that LAX was enlightened enough to have free wifi.  Just as in DFW, the options are T-Mobile or Admiral’s Club, which are both fee-based.  Unlike DFW, they don’t even have a wired free internet option available.  Considering the sheer number of business travelers through LAX, you’d think free wifi would be one of the most obvious things in the world.  *sigh

Airport Review – DFW

I didn’t have to go through security and check-in at Dallas-Fort Worth, so I can’t address those portions of the airport experience. The terminal is bright and easy to maneuver through, with two counter-rotating monorails zipping you around. There are CNN Airport News screens all over the place, but not too loud. The one closest to my connection looked like someone had tried to silence it with a shoe – the LCD had lots of nasty lines in the picture.

There was a Smoothie King right next to my gate, so that was nice. Opening up the netbook to make an entry was a bust, though. Unlike the tiny SJT, the massive DFW charges for wifi. Strangely, they provide several “free charge and internet” stations around the concourse. I don’t understand large corporations.

I’ll address LAX when I head home – it’s hard to get a flavor of an airport when you’re arriving. All I did was leave the plane, get my bag, and hop on the Enterprise shuttle.

Cheers.

Airport Review – SJT

As this is the first time I’ve flown since 2002, I am seeing three different airports with relatively fresh eyes. This morning, I started the journey at San Angelo Regional Airport (SJT), which is not the smallest I’ve been in (hello, Sierra Vista!) but it’s only got one airline and you have to ring a bell to get them to come to the counter.  They appear to have no more than 6 employees, who work as counter help, baggage handlers, and general support staff all.

SJT has free wifi in the lobby and in the concourse. Strangely, they are two different networks. They’re both “protected” by iPrism software, which has decided that I can’t program my DVR, read Gizmodo, or see images or CSS from Ars.Technica. I also can’t get to Livejournal because it’s a “web log” site, but I can get to Facebook just fine. This comports with my usual assumption that blocking software is based entirely on capricious decisions with no rational basis.

Security at SJT is relatively quick and painless, with no back-scatter body scanning and nobody I saw get groped. So far so good.

One great aspect of the SJT concourse and lobby is the complete lack of CNN Airport News. Those blaring idiot boxes with no means of escape are possibly the single longest-running aggravation of the traveler. I hated any layover when I traveled for work – even the airport employees seem to have no control over the volume on those things, because that would intrude on some revenue sharing no doubt. Anyway, SJT is quiet enough to hear all the cell phone conversations around you.

And the plane should be boarding soon, so off I go…

Vacation 2010 – Back to Cali

Facebook updates aside, I’ve been remiss in documenting our most recent vacation. So, here goes…

I’d been holding to a tradition of taking a “big” vacation in even years, and just short trips in Texas in odd years.  Then there was the unfortunate contract recompete that led to my job being gone for six weeks, and coming back at a 15% lower salary, so we doubled up on the Texas years. This year, we finally had the cash to stumble out to the west coast again, so we did.

For several years, The Boy has wanted to take a surfing class. Kat had an abiding distrust of Disneyana, and a love of animals. I love Monterey. All these combined to produce our itinerary of San Diego, Anaheim, and Monterey.

Continue reading Vacation 2010 – Back to Cali

Surfing with Dolphins

We’re spending a long weekend in Corpus Christi, concentrating on kayaking activities, but doing other touristy things as well. This morning was our introduction to kayak surfing, in an area known for relatively low surf because we’re big wimps. As I’m paddling out to hit some nice swells after a half hour or so, Kat yells, “FIN!” I turned to see a nice fin surfacing about 20 yards away. Fortunately, we recognized the fin as a dolphin relatively quickly (the constant diving and surfacing was another indicator), and then we watched and hoped there were other pod members nearby to entertain us, but to no avail.

This afternoon we watched some other dolphins at the aquarium, but even though we were quite amused by the near-constant pooing those critters were doing, they were not anywhere as memorable as the close encounter in the ocean off Padre Island.

Tomorrow is a paddling trail excursion at Port Aransas; wish us luck – there is a common recomendation to take a waterproof GPS with you. 🙂

Bankrupt Parks still fun

Although Six Flags just filed for bankruptcy, I can report that their original park is doing a good business. Pretty sure the light crowds today could be attributed to two things: it’s 96 degrees in Arlington, and a lot of schools around the country don’t end until late June. But, most rides were well-attended and The Boy enjoyed himself immensely. His boast that he would stay until park closure tonight was met with disbelief by yours truly, and indeed Father Knows Best. We took off before 5pm, but since we’d arrived before the park opened at 10am, we still had a good long day of roller coasters and other fun times.

I believe the 13 dollar “all you can drink” cup is an ingenious piece of marketing for the park. The cup is far too large to secure in your pocket, so every ride that demands no “loose items” requires another dollar fee to the locker monsters. Genius, I tell you.

Back home

Galveston_01.jpgGalveston_02.jpgGalveston is still a mess, a month after Hurricane Ike. They only just reopened the cruise terminal, but the traffic lights didn’t work and there were a lot of boats in places boats don’t normally rest, as well as large piles of debris.

Very easy drive back to San Angelo, with almost no traffic the whole route. The dogs were excited to see us, and wondered if we’d brought them back a turtle to eat, or perhaps just one of the rum cakes. We’re glad to be home, and Kat’s already looking at cruises and shore excursions in the Eastern Caribbean. Better check the savings account…

Tulum

HoneymoonCruise_Cozumel_02.jpgWe spent all of five minutes on the island of Cozumel, all of it standing in line to move to the ferry or racing back to the ship after the ferry dropped us off in the evening. Our ferry is the yellow catamaran on the right of this photo, while our ship (the Conquest) is attempting to hide behind the Triumph over on the left.

HoneymoonCruise_Cozumel_25.jpgWe had a great historical tour today, with our guide Manuel being a magnificent source of information on all things Mayan. This guy is a college-educated archaeologist/historian, and he was a delight to listen to. I’ve never seen a tour guide who so completely knew and obviously loved the material he was presenting. Anyway, we went to the ruins of the city of Tulum, an hour or so inland from the port of Playa del Carmen. The ruins have been restored and preserved very well, and the vast numbers of temples in such a small area was almost overwhelming. The equally vast numbers of iguanas was fascinating to one member of our couple (I’ll leave it to the reader to determine who that was).

HoneymoonCruise_Cozumel_74.jpgWe did do a little shopping, including picking up a Mayan cartouche and a couple blankets and t-shirts. Of course, we arrived at the ship just before it was time to leave, so no shopping in Cozumel itself.

HoneymoonCruise_Towel_07.jpg

Grand Cayman

HoneymoonCruise_Cayman_04.jpgYesterday was our thrill ride tour, today was our nature tour. The weather was beginning to look a little wet, due to what had just become Tropical Storm Paloma. There was rain on the ship as we docked, and the ground was wet on the pier when we hit land, but the rain that threatened us all day didn’t arrive. We wandered around the three shops that were open in the port of George Town, then hopped on a bus to hit our several destinations for the day.

We stopped in a tiny little tourist trap area named Hell. It is a bunch of very dangerous-looking rocks that have been colored black over time, and the locals have put up a post office that sells Hell postcards and will even mail them so they’ll have a postmark from Hell.

HoneymoonCruise_Cayman_50.jpgAfter Hell, we hit the road to one of the many many Tortuga rum and rum cake outlets. Since they had the same prices and selection as the one at the pier, we decided to not haul a bunch of rum cake around Grand Cayman. The Turtle Farm is a fabulous place, with a truly astounding number of sea turtles in their tanks. This place is not just a tourist attraction, but keeps a breeding program going as well. Of the hundreds of turtles that hatch each year, over 10% are released into the ocean, while 70% are kept as part of the exhibit and breeding program. The other 20%? Um, they generally become soup. Sorry animal lovers. Sadly, we didn’t get to spend nearly enough time at the turtle farm, because we had a schedule to keep. We did meet our friend Flappy there – he really wanted to get back in the water.

Then, it was time for the main event, the grand finale, the claim to fame of the island of Grand Cayman – the Stingray Sandbar. This is a truly amazing location, out in the bay off the northern coast of the island. For many years, fishermen would stop here, in this relatively calm and very shallow area far from shore, to clean their catch. After so many years of free fish, the stingrays on the sandbar are nearly tame. We swam with them, pet them, fed them, even got to hold them. Absolutely one of the best experiences ever. We couldn’t understand why there were several able-bodied people who paid for this tour and refused to get in the water. Mystifying.

We ran around George Town for about an hour, picking up souvenirs and the freebies that the jewelry shops seem intent on handing out, then back to the ship. The ship left an hour earlier than originally planned, due to what had now become Hurricane Paloma.

Back aboard, we had a couple hours of down time, and then the second Formal Night. Some folks seem to have a very relaxed definition of formal; the table next to us had a gentleman in a rather formless flannel shirt. He sure looked comfortable, anyway. Baked Alaska for dessert, first time Kat had tried the dish.

HoneymoonCruise_Towel_06.jpg

Jamaica

We really loaded ourselves down with shore excursions – only at the Caymans did we have even an hour of time between the tour and the time we needed to get on the ship. Not complaining, just explaining the relative lack of photos of the towns we were ostensibly docked at or near.

HoneymoonCruise_Jamaica_27.jpgWe went on the Zipline Adventure today. This involves climbing up hills in order to rocket from treetop to treetop to ridgeline via steel cables and pulleys. We had a great trio of guides to keep us safe and entertained. Hollywood was the leader of the pack, with his constant patter of “bing bong, party like a rock stah!”

Mighty Mouse and Dean were the other two guides, but I didn’t get good photos of them. Mighty Mouse (real name Shakila) insisted that we were lucky because we had the pretty guide. Gotta love confidence.

After climbing and zipping for the better part of two hours, we wandered back to the ship for a supposedly relaxing massage. Our two South African masseuses apparently didn’t get that memo. We felt like we’d been tenderized by the time they were done, but Kat (former massage therapist) complimented them on their technique.

A great dinner of smoked duck appetizers (tastes like ham!) and seafood newburg, and then off to the magic gymnast show. We wandered into the showroom, thinking we were early, and most of the good seats were taken. Then, one of the crew handed us VIP seating, marked as “just because,” and we got to sit so close we could see pores on the dancers.

HoneymoonCruise_Towel_05.jpg

Sea Day 1

HoneymoonCruise_04.jpgOur first morning aboard the ship was great.  It didn’t get above 75 today, but it was still a very pleasant day. We had breakfast with some Texans and a Canuck chef, then sat near the bow and read. We had a little wine-tasting, which was marred only slightly by a table near us which seemed to be surprised we were interrupting their rather boisterous conversation with some sort of wine-related event.

Dinner included lobster, where they sang a happy honeymoon song to us, and we finished the evening with a drink while listening to a jazz trio. They were very good, and Kat seemed to really appreciate the drummer, having been one herself.

HoneymoonCruise_Towel_02.jpg

Cruisin’

We are, as I write this, on the first sea day of our honeymoon cruise. We’ll be arriving in Jamaica on Wednesday, then Grand Cayman Thursday and Cozumel on Friday. We left from the still-devastated Galveston on Sunday afternoon; the ship left two hours late because it had to drop passengers from the previous week in Houston (where the cruise had been operating from while Galveston got back in order enough for the cruises even if not for their own residents).

So far, it’s been gorgeous and fun. There are a suprisingly large number of Texans on the ship, but we did have breakfast with a Canuck as well, and a wine tasting with a couple from Iowa. And several couples from Texas. 🙂

Not sure how often this will get updated before the 10th of November, but I’ll try to post at least once more this week. No photos before we return, though.HoneymoonCruise_Towel_01.jpg